Category Archives: toys

The power of bear-love!

Joe sitting on the verandaI was given my first two teddy bears when I was an infant. I guess my mother named them Fred and Bill, or maybe I named them myself when I got older…I don’t remember. My sister Bertie also had two bears named Fred and Bill. Hers were bigger than mine, because she was the firstborn and nearly two years older. Both Freds were white and made of real sheepskin, and both Bills were furry brown cloth.

Bertie and I kept our bears throughout our lives—through all our moves, changes, traumas, victories, and disappointments. My Fred finally disintegrated in 2006, but Bertie’s remained intact. Her Bill fell apart a couple of years later.

Bertie became a bear collector. She must have had at least 100 bears in her home in Connecticut, along with another 100 other stuffed animals and dolls of all sizes and shapes. I wasn’t a collector—I made teddy bears instead. I had a little business, sewing the bears on my sturdy Viking sewing machine and selling them via mail order in shoe boxes.

About a decade ago, Bertie gave me a bear for Christmas. He was fair-furred, not too big, and could sit up by himself. He could even do a somersault (if you pushed him) and end up in a sitting position. I loved this bear from the start, more than any bear I’d ever had—even more than Fred and Bill. Bertie and I were very close, and I know she’d put a lot of love and thought into picking out this particular bear for me. I named him Joe.

I took Joe with me whenever I traveled. I was living in Brazil, and I went back to the states for a year in 2007. When I returned, I couldn’t seem to find a space in my jam-packed suitcase to squeeze Joe in. Bertie said not to worry, she’d mail him to me.Joe climbing a tree

Well, I got back home to Rio and I waited. And waited. And waited, Months went by, and no sign of Joe. After still more time had gone by I started to think Joe was lost forever. Then one day I went down to the lobby to get my mail, and there it was…a badly crushed shoebox, with Joe inside! I checked all the postal labels on the box, and apparently he had spent several months in Peru, of all places! I was so happy to have him back. I wished he could talk so he could have told me about his adventures!

Time went by and I lost contact with most of my family, except for Bertie. Then she died. I was sorry I couldn’t be there with her at the end, but we spoke on the phone nearly every day. She told me she was convinced that life doesn’t end, and she said she wasn’t afraid. She had asked to be cremated, and she insisted on taking her bear Fred with her! I guess you’d have to be a teddy bear lover to understand, but I found that to be very touching.

So there I was, living by myself, except for Joe. Sometimes I swear, as crazy as it sounds, that he seemed almost alive to me. He’d sit there on his little folding stool all day, watching me. Once in a while I’d take him with me to sit on my bed or the couch, but as time went on I found that I was ignoring him more and more. Then one day I looked at him. He was just sitting there, looking rather forlorn—and very dirty. I suddenly felt guilty. I picked him up and said, “I’m sorry Joe, I’ve been thinking too much about myself and ignoring you.” I got a brush and brushed his fur. He looked a lot cleaner. Since then I keep him close to me when I can, and often talk to him. Such a good listener, my little buddy Joe! So non-judgmental! Really, it’s great to have real live friends, and I have some very, very close ones, but a teddy bear can be a great companion, too—never underestimate the power of bear-love!

Joe playing the piano

 

Joe hanging out to dry

Joe having breakfast

 

Bear sleepover

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Making things

As I mention in my book, my sister Bertie and I loved to make our own playthings. For instance, we were in love with the TV puppet show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and we made replicas of all the puppets and put on our own shows. Ma got us some got fake leopard fur to make Ollie the dragon, and we made Kukla’s round head from a hollow rubber ball.

Ma had taught us how to sew by hand, and how to make a doll out of a sock. Bertie and I had endless hours of fun making dolls out of our old socks and then making clothes for them. I had some brown socks and made a doll I named “Cocoa.” Once I pretended she had her period and made her a miniature Modess sanitary pad out of cotton and gauze. I even put a little piece of blue thread down the middle to show which side was up, the way they did with the real pads back then. 

Later on Ma taught us how to use the sewing machine too, and by the time we were in high school we were already making some of our own clothes.

I remember one Halloween there was a costume contest at a school party. I went all out to try to win first prize. Ma gave me some old white sheets and I dyed them red and painted designs on them with gold paint. I sewed them into a Balinese dancer costume. I made everything myself, including the headdress, and I thought it looked really great — I was sure I was going to win. But on Halloween night, much to my disappointment, a cute little blond girl wearing a store-bought witch costume from Woolworth’s won first prize. But even though I was angry and thought it was unfair, I didn’t let this squelch my natural desire to create things from scratch.

When Pop was home and more or less sober and in a good mood, he taught me and Bertie how to use a hammer, a saw, and a wood plane, and that was another creative outlet for us. We learned how to make little boxes and boats, and we built our own puppet stage. A lot of the skills we learned stood us in good stead later on, too, when we grew up and had our own homes to furnish and kids to dress. To this day, I love trying to make “something” out of “nothing” or a “silk purse” out of a “sow’s ear.”

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Filed under my history, the book, toys

Toys and games

When my sister Bertie and I were growing up from the middle 1940s to the 1950s, like most kids we had our share of toys over the years. We lived in the country and had no close neighbor children to play with, so we learned how to be creative with our toys and games.

Being little girls, we had lots of dolls, and our mother made doll clothes for us and we made things for our dolls, too. I remember that Bertie once made some skis for one of her dolls out of a pair of corset stays from one of Ma’s old girdles (remember those?). She bent up the ends into a curve and then painstakingly crafted a pair of tiny ski boots out of oilcloth, which she stuck onto the skis with glue.

But we also liked “boy” things, too, like little cars, trucks and trains. Our pop had wanted boys, so he showed us how to use a hammer and nails, and we learned to make simple things from wood, like boats and bookends. Pop also had a flair for drawing, and for humor, and he used to make us paper dolls that looked like cartoon characters, with funny big heads, handlebar moustaches and wild frizzy hair. Bertie and I would draw clothes for them with little tabs, and color them with colored pencils.

But when it came to the games that kids our age usually played, we weren’t really up to snuff. We had weird ways of playing with some things, not the way they were supposed to be played with at all. For instance, I didn’t know how to play Jacks and had no interest in learning how. Instead, I used to collect those little metal Jack thingies and the rubber balls and use them, well, sort of architecturally, arranging them in patterns and trying to stack them up. We had a game of Tiddlywinks, but only rarely did we sit down to play the game where you snap the winks into a cup to win points. Instead, we’d line the plastic discs up in rows or create pictures with them by drawing circles around the outside of the discs.

I knew that there was an actual game called “marbles” but I had no idea how to play it. Sometimes I’d watch other kids trying to shoot each others’ marbles out of a ring, but I didn’t understand what they were doing and it never appealed to me. Nevertheless, I had a large collection of marbles in a cigar box. They fascinated me, with their swirly colors, and the way they sparkled in the sun. Bertie and I collected them and traded them with each other. Once we went to visit my Grandma and I found a box of old clay marbles in a closet. They weren’t shiny and swirly like my glass ones, and most of them weren’t very round, either, but I loved them. They were old and interesting and lopsided and nobody I knew had anything like them. I had fun arranging them in a circle and imagining little boys in caps and jodhpurs from long ago playing marble games with them in the street.

Ma bought Red Rascal roller skates for me and Bertie that clamped onto our shoes, and we used to skate up and down the cement terrace at the back of our house. But what I really liked to do with the skates was to use them as cars for my dolls. One skate would seat two of my smaller dolls, and then I’d take them for a fast ride around the terrace, using the leather ankle strap to keep them from falling off.

Pop liked to play chess, and he had a nice wooden chess set. The pieces were small and smooth and I loved the way they felt in my hands. I used them as toy soldiers, creating a battle field under the dining room table, until I was around nine years old. That was when Pop taught me how to play the real game of chess and I finally learned how to use the pieces the “right” way.

Our bedroom had spare drawers, so Bertie and I made dollhouses in them, using the cardboard that came in Pop’s shirts from the dry cleaner to build walls, and making furniture out of matchboxes, clay, popsicle sticks and anything else we could get our hands on, including Pop’s empty 22 rifle shells, which we used for tiny drinking glasses. We fashioned little people to live in our houses out of pipe cleaners and scraps of cloth.

But the most fun Bertie and I ever had playing with our dollhouses was with the Scrabble chips. We had no interest in playing the game in those days, but Pop had gotten a job working at a little Scrabble chip factory and he used to bring all the faulty chips home for us. They were made of real wood, so Bertie and I got to work right away, turning them letter-side down to make beautiful parquet floors for “drawer houses.”

Bertie and I were big fans of the TV show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and we recreated the puppets ourselves with scraps of cloth, papier maché, buttons, glue, and so on. We used little rubber balls for Kukla’s nose, and got Ma to buy us some animal print fuzzy cloth for Ollie’s body.

When I was 10 years old, Ma gave me a book for my birthday called “Angelina Amelia.” It was a story about a doll and her adventures through several generations. Once again, both Bertie and I just had to have our own Angelina dolls, so we made them ourselves, sewed frilly dresses for them by hand, and crafted tiny shoes from chamois cloth.

WE were both big fans of “The Wizard of Oz” books, so we made scarecrows out of our old clothes. I swear we would have made the tin woodsman and the lion, too, if we could have found the materials!

I think I must have passed some of Bertie’s and my off-beat way of playing with toys on to my own daughters. When Hilary was a pre-toddler, for instance, her idea of fun was not to actually play with her toys, but to stuff them all in her toy box and then climb in with them and just sit there. And when Madeleine was around 9 or so, her favorite thing was to yank the heads off her Barbie dolls and then draw smiley faces on their neck stubs! A bit macabre, I suppose, but I have to admit it was pretty funny and I often joined in, indelible pen in hand.

How did we ever get along without video games, iPhones, and iPads without getting bored? Hey, it was easy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anthropomorphism and stuffed animals

The other day a friend, Meg Dendler, posted on Facebook that she loves Betty White because Betty talks to her stuffed animals.

Well, this certainly resonated with me, because I not only talk to my teddy bear Joe, but also put him to bed every night with his own little blanket. I have posted a whole album of pictures of him on my Facebook profile. You see, Joe is my only remaining teddy bear, my last stuffed animal. He’s golden-colored, cuddly, and can sit up by himself.

I’ve had many stuffed animals throughout the years: Tommy the monkey (who was actually a little hard and stiff), Humpty-Dumpty (not exactly an animal, more like a flattened cloth egg), numerous stuffed rabbits in various colors, and best of all, Fred and Bill, the teddy bears I received as a gift when I was born. Fred was whitish and made of sheepskin (he was the first to rot many years later) and Bill was dark brown fake fur. I washed and brushed him so much that much of his hair eventually fell out.

My sister Bertie had a fabulous collection of stuffed animals and dolls. They filled up an entire bedroom and overflowed into her living room and office. Now that she’s not with us any more, I imagine most of the dolls, bears and other stuffed toys will go to charity, including a couple that I made myself when I was operating my teddy bear company in the 70s, Bears Primarily (named by my great pal Madora Kibbe).

But Joe is special. Bertie gave him to me on my birthday about a decade ago, and I’ve carried him around with me ever since. That is until I spent a year in the USA in 2007-2008 and left him with Bertie when I came back to Rio because I couldn’t squeeze him into my already jammed suitcase. Bertie nicely agreed to mail him to me. She carefully wrapped him in plastic bubble wrap, packed him into a shoe box, filled out the customs forms and sent him off.

I waited and waited. And waited. Months went by and there was no sign of Joe. What could have happened to him? Was he lost forever in the tangled web of the international mail service? I finally gave him up as lost, and tried to forget, hoping he’d somehow find his way into the arms of some deserving child.

But then one day a package arrived. I went downstairs to see what it was and the doorman handed me a crushed, but intact shoebox. It was Joe! I ripped off the tape and opened the lid…there he was, in perfect condition. I was so excited that I pulled him out of the box and introduced him to the doorman, who looked at me rather strangely. But I didn’t care, I was just happy to have Joe back.

When I got upstairs, I found out what had taken Joe so long to get home…somehow he’d ended up in Peru! I’m glad the Peruvian post office had the good sense to get him back on track and down to Rio where he belongs.

Here’s Joe’s very own Facebook album:

https://www.facebook.com/amy.duncan.50/media_set?set=a.1085571185348.15320.1408440133&type=3

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